You’re The Man
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Marvin Gaye’s string of five consecutive albums beginning with 1971’s iconic What’s Going On is one of the most impressive golden runs among popular music’s legendary artists. From the divine, socially conscious beginning, through the carnal joys of Let’s Get It On (1973) and ending with the dramatic kiss off to his marriage to Anna Gordy-Gaye on Here, My Dear (1978), Gaye had it all. Capable of summoning god and any woman in the same moment, he could do it all.
Life could hardly have been better, right? For Marvin though, the doubts and the devil were never far from the surface. Having delivered a record that shook the industry and the world to its core in May 1971, Gaye became the highest paid R&B star the world had known to that point. But Marvin being Marvin, the only thing he could see was how far he could fall from the zenith of his accomplishments.
The follow-up to What’s Going On entitled You’re The Man was heralded by the project’s title track in the summer of 1972, but it made a modest splash at best. The scathing reproach it offered conservative politicians scared his boss and brother-in-law Berry Gordy (how’s that for an awkward pair of relationships?) and led to promotion being pulled and the album being scrapped. Looking back, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory seems like such a Marvin thing to do, such were his self-destructive capabilities.
The majority of the tracks that find themselves on this much-trumpeted release (done so to coincide with what would have been Gaye’s 80th birthday) have been available elsewhere on different compilations, but this marks the first time they have been reunited under the auspices of a fully formed album. Alongside the original mixes lie three songs that have been given some additional production/mix by Salaam Remi. Which appears a bit pointless, but if it generates any additional buzz for the album, so be it.
None of that background though matters a jot when Gaye’s voice issues so majestically from the speakers. His imperious, unequalled (I know, I’m feeling brave) voice cuts swathes through the material, some of which is among the best he ever released. That album opener and title track delivers the devastating lines that tell us politicians haven’t changed in almost 50 years: “So blind, unsignified / Your opponents always lying / Think about the mistakes you make / I believe America's at stake.” His words become even more explicit in his disgust for the politicians of his day (and ours): “Politics and hypocrites / Is turning us all into lunatics / Can you take the guns from our sons? / Right all the wrong this administration's done?” While it is depressingly prescient that these lyrics still fit our times like a glove, the soothing balm of Marvin Gaye singing them more than outweighs the more morose feelings they may prompt.
Further evidence of his genius comes in his performance of “Piece Of Clay.” Written by Gloria Jones and Pamela Sawyer, it offers Gaye the chance to becalm the raging demons of his relationship to his father, if only for the 5 minutes and 11 seconds duration of the song. The poignancy of the struggle between father and son is, of course, amplified sharply by the tragic ending of Gaye’s life at the hands of his own father. To the sanctified glory of shimmering organ and divine, plaintive guitar he sings: “Father, stop criticizing your son / Mother, please leave your daughters alone / Don’t you see what’s wrong / With the world, with the world today?”
Zephyr light, “Where Are We Going?” offers a dainty piano line and further evidence of Gaye’s imperious voice, but less in the way of lyrical content. It is around the midpoint of the album that it begins to sag a little. Make no mistake the songs therein are far from poor, but they offer a backward look, rather than a glimpse of the future. “Try It You’ll Like It,” “You Are That Special One” and “We Can Make It Baby” have more in common with the Motown sound pre-What’s Going On than with the musical landscape that Gaye created on that epochal piece of art. There’s quaintness to the songs despite the expert musicianship and delivery.
Salaam Remi’s remix of “Symphony” succeeds despite his intervention, rather than because of it. The drums are unnecessarily turned up in the mix, meaning the trademark dreamy multi-tracked backing vocals and delicious strings have to work harder to be heard. That quibble notwithstanding though, the vocals are so strong that they remind anyone with ears that it would be perfectly acceptable to hear Marvin Gaye sing the periodic table.
Things pick up at the end of the album, with two previously widely available tracks. The down-home loose-limbed grooves of “I’m Going Home” and “Checking Out (Double Clutch)” bridge the gap between the more generically Motown songs around the middle of the album and the classics of the future. It could be said that this is the album in microcosm—a moment of artistic uncertainty, caught between the safety of the past and the unknown promise of the future.
This album lacks the singularity of theme that subsequent classics (and What’s Going On) had and, therefore, has considerably less impact than those bona fide works of genius. Instead it gives a snapshot of the artist caught in the throes of artistic struggle, unsure of which direction to take. That it falls short of classic status is hardly surprising, but it should also be less than shocking to realize there are moments of sheer genius throughout. No longer lost, may it be found by as many as possible.
Notable Tracks: "I’m Going Home" | “Piece of Clay” | "Symphony" | “You’re The Man”